Cal Colgan Blames New Atheists for Chapel Hill Shooting

Here’s an idiotic tweet from @calcolgan, ironically calling out his imagined idiocy of others:
4:25 PM – 12 Feb 2015
“New Atheist” idiots are turning nonbelief into the very violent fanaticism they oppose. We atheists shd condemn this

From a twitter exchange this is what he thinks about the #ChapelHillShooting:

  • Colgan says New Atheists idiots have turned non-belief into violent fanatcism.
  • Colgan claims there’ve been numerous violent atheists – and is asked which ones.
  • Colgan responds with: What about state sponsored terrorism.
  • Colgan complains that New Atheists focus on Islam.
  • Colgan accuses Hitchens of supporting the war in Iraq because he and other New Atheists want to kill off Islam.
  • Colgan implies that Harris and Dawkins think all religious people are terrorists, “Doesn’t mean all religious ppl are potential terrorists.”

Nowehere does he actually back up his claims that:

  • New Atheists are turning non-belief into violent fanaticism
  • That Dawkins and Harris are somehow at fault for focusing on religion and Islam specifically
  • That Hitchens backed the war in Iraq because he wanted to kill off Islam
  • That any New Atheist has remotely suggested that all religious people are terrorists.

The New Atheists I’ve come across have been humanists, and some are subscribing Humanists through various national and international organisations.

I don’t know of any atheists, new or otherwise, that have committed violence in the name of atheism or New Atheism; and in fact violence is antithetical to their humanist beliefs. I can understand why Colgan would be dismayed at such people turning non-belief into violent fanaticism, if only they had. But of course they haven’t. It’s all in Colgan’s head. And remember, this Colgan calamity came out of the #ChapelHillShooting, and the investigation has yet to reveal the actual motivation of Hicks the shooter – unlike the many terrorist attacks by Muslims (NOT ALL MUSLIMS!) where we know the motivation, done explicitly in the name of Islam, often with quotes from Islamic texts to justify the attacks.

He’s right on state sponsored terrorism of course, in that the US and allies have done some atrocious things. And New Atheist humanists object to them as much as anyone, even if much of their public writing has other targets. So why is Colgan providing state sponsored terrorism as an example of the numerous atheists (or New Atheists) performing terror acts in response to the works of Dawkins and Harris – I don’t recall any reports from Wikileaks of clandestine activities quoting Dawkins or Harris.

And though Dawkins and Harris do focus on Islam rather than state sponsored terrorism, why does that mean that they should not criticise religion, or Islam specifically, when the religious doctrines advocate anti-humanist, anti-liberal, anti-democratic presscriptions, and in the case of Islam, actual violence, oppression and terror. If Dawkins and Harris have their specific concerns about religion, and feel that great journalists like Glenn Greenwald, and of course Cal Colgan, have state sponsored terrorism covered, what exactly is Colgan’s beef?

I mean, it’s not as if Islam is not a source of terror. If Colgan thinks state actions constitute terror, then why not religious rules that prescribe (and in some Islamic states result in) death for apostasy – how is that not a tool of terror. How are blasphemy laws not a tool of terror when laced with the threat of death? Why does Colgan think Islam gets a pass on these and many other tenets that are explicitly part of the religion? Why do Hadith that prescribe tossing homosexuals off buildings not count as terror threats?

Why single out Islam? Islam isn’t singled out. All religions are criticised. But, in Colgan’s words, let’s be real: the following were done directly in the name of Islam or its prophet in order to inflict terror, suppress criticism, avenge Allah or Mohammed for the insults inflicted upon them:

You wonder why Dawkins and Harris make it all about Islam? because so many Muslims are making terror all about Islam. Of course there are other factors that should be addressed. There are many people around the world with real and legitimate grievances against someone or other, but few do it in such a monolithic manner using the texts of a religion to justify attacking and killing innocent people. I don’t see many Christians rushing to fight for the latest Crusade in defence of Christians persecuted by Muslims.

And here’s Harris, having to spell out how he has spelt it out already,

“Although I clearly stated that I wasn’t claiming that all Muslims adhere to the dogmas I was criticizing; distinguished between jihadists, Islamists, conservatives, and the rest of the Muslim community; and explicitly exempted hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t take the doctrines about blasphemy, apostasy, jihad, and martyrdom seriously, Affleck and Kristof both insisted that I was disparaging all Muslims as a group.”

It is totally dishonest of Colgan to even imply it as he did.

Another significant point that Colgan misses is that state sponsored terrorism has always been done against the spirit, and usually (though becoming less so) against the law, of the constitutions and principles of all western democracies – and of course Colgan is targeting the US and allies here, but neglects to mention Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and of course Saudi Arabia, and other Islamic states where the doctrine and politics of Islam dictates such terror sponsorship. He also seems to miss the fact that much of the state sponsored terror carried out by the US is in the capable hands of right thinking Christians – ‘In God We Trust’ and all that. Atheists are a minority in the US, and New Atheists an even smaller minority, and none of them, as far as I know, are engaged in or support state sponsored terrorism. Why the fuck does the stupid Colgan associate his claim that New Atheists are inciting violence, with state sponsored terror? He’s deluded himself. Good job. To be honest, I don’t suppose he does think they are associated. It’s more likely he was busy backtracking after a gratuitous opportunistic dig at New Atheists – welcome on board the Greenwaldian bandwagon Cal.

The only belief system providing an explanation for British born, Pakistani heritage, youth travelling into Syria and Iraq is because they have been called to do so by fellow Muslims, to defend and/or spread the Muslim faith, to join the long anticipated Caliphate. It doesn’t matter one holy fuck that the majority of Muslims choose not to follow suit. It matters not a jot that so many Muslims ignore the terror incitement contained in their holy texts, or make pathetic excuses for it in the name of ‘context’, because the incitement remains for the crazy and the gullible to follow, and that’s the nature of the specific problem with Islam, right now, today. The problem with Islam isn’t most Muslims, it’s Islam.

Colgan, your original tweet and follow up is a complete fucking joke. You are making a damned fool of yourself buying into this crazy Greenwaldian double speak. The New Atheists are not inciting violence in any way whatsoever, while the inerrant Quran itself does, along with the Hadith. It is fucking dishonest to try and make the false equivalences you do, between New Atheists and Islamic terrorists, or between New Atheists and state sponsored terror.

As a final appeal to common sense, let me spell out a few of the points again:

  • New Atheist coverage of Islam at the omission of coverage of state sponsored terror is no more an endorsement of state sponsored terror than Glenn Greenwald’s focus on state sponsored terror at the expense of his possible focus on Islamic terror is an implication of his endorsement of Islamic terror.
  • The humanism of the New Atheists’ and their criticism of the anti-humanism of Islam has fuck all to do with some atheist going off on one and killing three Muslims, for whatever reason. Even if it turns out Hicks thinks it was inspired by New Atheism.
  • Blaming New Atheism for Hicks is as as dumb as claiming that someone reading Glenn Greenwald criticism of NSA spying on its citizens was incited to spy on US citizens, and it’s Greenwald’s fault, for criticising spying on US citizens.
  • Is in no way equivalent to the Islamic terrorism that has actual Muslims (SOME MUSLIMS, NOT ALL MUSLIMS! FUCK, HAVE YOU GOT THAT?) declaring they are performing the acts of terror in the name of Islam, using the actual texts of Islam to justify their actions. Because the former has zero incitement to violence but actually opposes it, and while the latter actually incites violence, , as many engage in violence, and while many of its adherents are duplicitous in their denial of it.

Earlier I asked, “Why does Colgan think Islam gets a pass…” I’m sure he doesn’t give Islam a pass really. My guess is he opposes many aspects of Islamic doctrine, just as New Atheists do. So, what’s his problem with New Atheists? Because that’s what his tweet is all about, and precious little to do with Chapel Hill, which is only a convenient outlet for his opinions. I’m not suggesting his sorrow at the event is any less than that of Dawkins or Harris.

The thing is, what you find with many like Colgan, is that they are great on criticism but short on solution. Colgan may think Islam has problems (I doubt he thinks it totally benign in all regards) but he opposes attempts to do anything about it, or interprets the words of the New Atheists in calling for reform in Islam (and note the work of Maajid Nawaz here and his collaboration with Harris) as New Atheist terrorism, racism, bigotry. He’d rather hope the problem goes away than risk offending Muslims. He has no problem offending fellow atheists though. Not that I object to him offending fellow atheists, but I do object to his double standards

Below is a collection of tweets that were used as a source for this post. If any significant ones are missing, or if I’ve misrepresented Colgan’s views as portrayed in his tweets, then I’d be glad to make corrections. If Cal Colgan wants to comment I’d be glad to hear from him.

Hide tweets
4:25 PM – 12 Feb 2015
“New Atheist” idiots are turning nonbelief into the very violent fanaticism they oppose. We atheists shd condemn this
12:14 AM – 13 Feb 2015
One violent atheist and “idiots are turning non belief into the very violent …” Get some proportion.
7:18 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Let’s be real: There’ve been numerous “violent atheists.” Atheists are only united in our nonbelief.
7:25 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Really? Numerous? Violent against the religious because of their atheism? Which ones? Compared to theists violent FOR religion?
7:39 PM – 13 Feb 2015
I’m not going to get into a tired debate abt how Islam is the chief perveyor of terrorism in the world.
7:40 PM – 13 Feb 2015
If you define terrorism as killing of innocents for political gain, state terrorism by Western govts has higher death toll.
7:40 PM – 13 Feb 2015
But Dawkins, Maher, Harris, et al only seem concerned about Islam, b/c it’s easier to criticize outspoken fanatics than govts.
7:46 PM – 13 Feb 2015
So what? They do do other things of course, but so what? Dawkins is anti-religion because of evo education.
7:47 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Terrorism is intentional killing of innocents, for terror – clue in name. With gvt. it’s usually a fuck up and not primary intent
8:11 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Sigh. I’m not saying theists haven’t committed more violence. But state atheism has lead to millions of deaths as well.
8:12 PM – 13 Feb 2015
The problem isn’t necessarily religion. The problem is the authoritarian manipulation of religion.
8:12 PM – 13 Feb 2015
For every MLK & Malcolm X, there’s a Jon Tiller or Osama bin Laden. Doesn’t mean all religious ppl are potential terrorists.
8:13 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Also, way to downplay the killing of innocent people by govts. Christopher Hitchens would be proud.
8:50 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Actually, he’s right. You made a moral-equivalency argument between ISIS and the US. And what about Hitchens, exactly?
9:18 PM – 13 Feb 2015
I don’t downplay gvt., of US, UK, oh and Islamic Saudi, Islamic Iran. Compare US Constitution with Sharia
9:19 PM – 13 Feb 2015
But go on, give examples of 9/11, 7/7, Madrid, embassies, …, by US/UK
9:21 PM – 13 Feb 2015
1.) US has been around longer than ISIS. Not saying savagery is the same. Proportionality of violence different.
9:22 PM – 13 Feb 2015
2.) Hitchens famously defended the Iraq War, and other New Atheists defended it b/c “Islam needs to die.”
9:23 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Sure. 9/11/73: CIA-funded military coup of Chile resulted in fascist dictatorship. Thousands died ovr next 10 yrs.
9:23 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Proportional to capability. You think ISIS wouldn’t do more if it could?
9:24 PM – 13 Feb 2015
30,000 ppl slaughtered in Argentina’s Dirty War. CIA trained right wing gov’t.
9:25 PM – 13 Feb 2015
So nothing to do with Chilean get. And Mid East nothing to do with Iraq,Iran,Saudi,… All down to US?
9:25 PM – 13 Feb 2015
1982 — priests were killed & nuns were raped & killed by CIA-funded AUC death squad in Colombia.
9:26 PM – 13 Feb 2015
You’re mincing words. Didn’t say Mid-East has nothing to do with it, but US, Britain, France played big part in chaos
9:26 PM – 13 Feb 2015
All states meddle where they can. Just that some have more power. Not excusing it, but not all down to US
9:27 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Never said it’s all down to US. Funny how you make blanket criticisms of Islam & then defend US state terrorism
9:27 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Supporting Taliban, then opposing them? Yeah, got’ fuck up.
9:28 PM – 13 Feb 2015
But still, where in Constitution is that justified. Quran/Hadith EXPLCITLY incite violence and oppression.
9:29 PM – 13 Feb 2015
All states play part in chaos. So, your point then is what?
9:30 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Again, where in US constitution, UK law, is justification for control of belief (apostasy) criticism (blasphemy)
9:31 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Quran is claimed to be inerrant. So ISIS has good claim to be following it. More so than moderates.
9:33 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Nowhere, but Founders also went through with 1798 Alien & Sedition Acts — 7 yrs after Bill of Rights passed.
9:36 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Where have I defended it?
9:38 PM – 13 Feb 2015
And the blanket criticism of Islam is because this is in all versions of Quran: So, yes.
9:39 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Like I said, US ‘terror’ is failure to comply with own constitution. ISIS is complying with Islam.
9:42 PM – 13 Feb 2015
U twist my blanket crit of Islam for “all relig ppl terrorists” Where’ve I seen that misrep. before. Reza Aslan, Glenn Greenwald?
9:47 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Sigh. I’m not saying state action doesn’t. So we agree then. Islam bad. Not all Muslims bad. Some state acts bad.
9:49 PM – 13 Feb 2015
“The problem isn’t necessarily religion.” Yes it is. Read violence in Quran.
9:50 PM – 13 Feb 2015
“Authoritarian manipulation”? LOL. Religon IS authoritarian. Apostasy. Blasphemy. Lashes. Stoning. What are they?
9:51 PM – 13 Feb 2015
“School of Americas, and the Contras didn’t intentionally kill innocents?” Where did I say that?
10:35 PM – 13 Feb 2015
And Hitchens spent his life trying to get the parties responsible to face accountability–he made a movie about it!
10:40 PM – 13 Feb 2015
The Founders? Hm, I guess Jefferson and Madison (who greatly opposed the A&S Acts) weren’t “Founders”.

View tweets

New Atheism

New Atheism is being subjected to attacks, and it’s clear from those attacks, from what the critics say, that many really don’t understand New Atheism, and in many cases haven’t read what new Atheists actually say, but rather rely on what other opponents say New Atheists say. There are descriptions of New Atheism around the internet, but many of them don’t really explain what is being missed. So, here’s my take.

I’m focusing on New Atheism here, rather than atheism generally, or humanism, or Atheism Plus (A+), because it is so often attacked by these other atheist groups, by #LimpLogicLiberals as well as by theists.

New Atheism is the label assigned to atheists that are more vocal in their criticism of religion. In most respects they are not saying anything new that all atheists say, when it comes to belief in God; and they are all that more critical of religion that many earlier atheists. What seems to get peoples backs up about them is their ‘stridency’, and the fact that they have it in for Islam. Now all this has arisen since 9/11 in 2001, which was a turning point.

The current two New Atheists that get most stick are Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Hitchens is dead, and Dennett is rather mild mannered by comparison. Jerry Coyne has taken up the mantle to some extent. He, like Dawkins, leans towards the educational aspect as well as the wider social implications of religion – he, like Dawkins, oppose the Creationism and its rejection of Evolution. Both criticise the Christian Creationism in the US; and Dawkins also covers Islamic Creationism in the UK, particularly in relation to the move towards religiously controlled schools that sneak creationism in, or blatantly push it while rejecting Evolution.

Then there are many less prominent but public figures who could be called New Atheists – so Stephen Pinker is one that finds himself grouped with the New Atheists, whether he likes it or not, because he writes stuff that often includes a science based criticism of irrational belief; and Michael Shermer is another, more in the Skeptical community, though he has critics in the self-styled A+, Feminist, Skeptical community; and Michael Nugent, who focuses on religion in Ireland, but expresses many of the same views as the New Atheists, and also might be lumped in with them for also being attacked by the A+ crowed.

And then there are the many nobodies such as myself, that haunt the internet putting theist straight in their foolish ways.

One problem for anyone trying to get a handle on New Atheism is that, despite the common claim by opponents, it is not a religion or a singular political belief system. It is the amalgamation of a number of beliefs, or more realistically, a number of adaptive processes for coming to beliefs, and as such it is comfortable with allowing for difference of belief and changes to belief.

One way of describing New Atheism is to observe its relationship to other strands of thought:

Humanism – While many New Atheists are Humanists, in that they subscribed to Humanist organisations, national or international (Dawkins is a member of the BHA), all of them that I have come across are at least humanists, small ‘m’, in that they support humanist beliefs.

Humanist organisations tend to spell out their beliefs, in something like a Humanist Manifesto: proposals or agreed tenets of behaviour worked out using some of the principles above, but they are not tenets of absolute belief, the way tenets of a religion might be. That’s not to say that some humanists don’t hold to them as if they are absolute. You will find some humanists declaring Human Rights to be absolute, but I’d argue with that. They are contingent upon our feelings as evolved and culturally developed humans, and as such can vary with culture, and could have varied further had we humans arrived here with different evolved feelings.

If you look at this list, on Humanist Manifesto III, you’ll see that it pretty much covers the rest of the items below. Humanist organisations tend to be more politically active, while the prominent New Atheists may be included in that activism, they are better known for their own unaffiliated works.

Science – Typically there is an agreement that science can reveal much more about the world, and about humans, than mere navel gazing or inventing magical entities that reveal knowledge ready made. There is much confusion here, caused by humanists, and some Humanists, that while not anti-science intentionally, do a great disservice to humanism by crying about ‘scientism’. No current New Atheist I know claims that science actually has the answer to all our problems. They simply don’t – ask them.

What they will tend to say is that science, now, or in the future, is a set of methodologies that do or will offer the best way to come to understand the world and humans. None of them I know of deny totally the value of the arts of various kinds – and in fact many, maybe most, value the arts greatly. And on balance I’d say that scientifically educated and professional scientist New Atheists appreciate the arts far more than many of their non-science critics appreciate science. In fact many of their critics are quite ignorant of many aspects of science, especially its general nature. This is a bone of contention with theists and philosophers typically, but also with some non-sciency liberal journalists.

Science is the result of humans using their natural evolved faculties of the senses and reason, and applying those more rigorously, often with the aid of instruments and mathematics, in order to enhance the range data gathered and analysis of data that comes from being more rigorous. Science is not some extra-human realm of magic. All humans are in principle capable of learning and challenging any claim made in science. New Atheists tend to expand the use of the term ‘science’, certainly to include many of the social sciences, but also to include straight forward observation and common sense – with the caveat that the raw unrigorous faculties can be so fallible that where possible the methods of science should be used to test our hypotheses.

It’s such a broad and inclusive description that one wonders why anyone would object to it. But some do, for the expedient purpose of objecting to New Atheist criticism of their religion or their philosophy.

This broad science approach is in contrast to religion, where all its significant claims about knowledge are based on the imagination of some magical entity revealing knowledge to humans, often particular humans.

This also contrasts with pure reason of philosophy, where the mind is the only tool of significance. Of course even the most Rationalist or Idealist philosopher bases all he knows on empirical observation. And the most supernaturalist Christian or Muslim theist relies on the empirical observation of the content of a book (for all they take too much from it). But that’s not always appreciated. The most extreme critics of the sciency approach, those that cry ‘scientism’, use the same approach too, but badly, and in such a way they think they are engaging in ‘other ways of knowing’. This seems somewhat delusional, for there is zero evidence of other ways of knowing beyond the use of our senses and reasoning about what we observe.

But back to science and its influence on New Atheism. So, what science does, even in its most basic form of observing the world and reasoning about it, is it reveals something very significant: science is hard work, and the results are not always easy to interpret, and ideas may change over time as new data comes in.

And this is a foundational appreciation of the nature of reality and the human condition. We are learning as we go.

On that basis, and on where science is now, no human has any knowledge about how the universe came into being, despite a few centuries of trying to figure that out, and a few millennia of the religious claiming they already found out. There is zero data to support any notion of some supernatural being; and while there is no evidence to exclude one there is also no evidence to exclude multiple supernatural beings, a hierarchy, of hypernatural, superhypernatural, or any other source of beings. There is zero evidence that the intelligence ascribed to such imaginary beings exists in any form, other than the form we experience in ourselves.

But, despite this overwhelming lack of any data about gods of any kind, the contingent nature of knowledge on future developments is such a compelling idea that New Atheists informed by science are pretty much compelled to hold that no human has all the answers to all the questions we ask, and therefore it is reasonable to accept, even encourage, a variety of thought, even if that leads to mistaken beliefs sometimes.

Freedom of Belief – The above idea alone, of the contingency and fluidity of accurate knowledge, is sufficient for New Atheists to support the freedom of belief. But add to that the general humanist principle that all humans are valuable, then all together New Atheists have nothing that would lead them to persecute people for any of the varieties of form that humans come in – skin colour, place of and parentage of origin on earth (race), sexual orientation.

Religion is set of belief systems that New Atheists do not hold with, and based on the above, New Atheists find religions to be loaded with bad ideas. But from a humanist and observational perspective it is clear that most believers are indoctrinated into their religious beliefs from being children. Additionally there are many charismatic con men out there that can easily turn the unwary to pretty much any religious belief, so even adulthood is not protection from erroneous belief. And even New Atheists acknowledge many natural cultural human biases that can deflect their own thinking from the best reasoned path. So, it would seem at least cruel, to blame all theists for their beliefs, or to blame anyone entirely for whatever they come to believe.

So all-in-all New Atheists have every reason to support the freedom of belief.

The humanism, contingency of knowledge and the freedom of belief lead New Atheists to another principle:

Secularism – Secularism isn’t atheism, though it is often passed off as such. Secularism is the disassociation of power from belief, particularly political power. In specifically that leads to the separation of church and state, the most common expression of secularism and that which is included in some Humanist ‘manifestos’

Secularism allows people of varying beliefs to engage in any requirements their belief systems have, without favour or privilege and without persecution. Keeping belief systems as far away from state power as possible prevents the persecution of non-state-validated belief systems.

This is difficult of course, because states use powers, and some of those powers will inevitably align with some belief system and not with others, while at the same time some other powers might align with different belief systems. It’s difficult not to restrict state power to the lowest common denominator, which means no power, without enabling chaos and violence in the name of belief systems to proceed unchecked. Some degree of state power and policing is necessary in order to then allow as much individual freedom as possible. While the Golden Rule is the most commonly acknowledge lowest common denominator it isn’t universal agreed upon, particularly by religions that profess that their God insists they should interfere in the lives of non-believers. But this latter case is a very good reason for endorsing secularism, unless you follow the religion in power.

There are many believers that appreciate this dilemma, of balancing freedom of belief with the freedom to impose your beliefs on others, and so there are many religious believers that subscribe to secularism as the separation of church and state – though of course confusion ensues because some of those same theists use the term secularism to refer to atheism and the loss of religious privilege that exists for their religion.

All this isn’t to say that New Atheists are the sole torch bearers for atheism, humanism, secularism, science and scepticism. There are members of the liberal elite that support all those but are also engaged in a diatribe of abuse and misrepresentation of New Atheists. But more on those another time. For now, that’s my summary of New Atheism – or how I see New Atheism, in myself and in the expressed views of people like Dawkins and Harris.

This is presented as a separate thing, and is discussed and engaged in in terms of the ‘Sceptical Community’ (Skeptical in the US). It too is a bit of an amalgamation of approaches, but emphasises scepticism and often targets religion, but is also critical of the paranormal – so JREF and CFI are typical of this wider focus. But of course, scepticism is a natural feature of a good science based approach to knowledge, and a feature of New Atheist thinking.

Clarifying Some Points

The prominent New Atheists are even somewhat reluctant to call themselves New Atheists, though some accept the label for want of a better one.

Opponents of New Atheism make various claims about New Atheism or New atheists that are simply untrue. In an attempt to clarify some specific points I present the following.

Is New Atheism a belief system? Not as such, in that it has no beliefs set in stone. But it does look for evidence to inform and support beliefs. But then those beliefs are contingent and subject to improvement. They are contingent conclusions of a method of thinking and observing the world, and are not something that we start out with. Having said that it’s quite possible that the same beliefs were arrived at by other means, along with many mistaken beliefs, and that New Atheism methods have trimmed our beliefs down to some set that we think most reliable, for now.

Is New Atheism a political movement? Not explicitly, and the most prominent New Atheists are generally scientists and philosophers rather than politicians. But in other capacities they engage in social and political change – for example, by being members of organisations like the British Humanist Association, which does lobby politicians for social change, or objecting to the neglect and abuse of science in education.

It is fair to say New Atheists are anti-religion. Though they generally acknowledge that many people can use religion for entirely good purposes, the method of belief, using faith and relying on presuppositions declared in ancient texts, is such an unreliable guide to knowledge that it can be so easily turned to hate, oppression and terror – and much of the effort of New Atheists is engaged in pointing out these faults. This is the extent to which they are anti-religion.

It is fair to say that New Atheists are anti-theists. This is somewhat less of a social and political position that being anti-religion – more of a science and philosophy take on the absence for any evidence to support the beliefs of the dominant religions, or any religions for that matter. The New Atheist approach also includes explanations on what is clearly the poor reasoning of many of the religious. Some philosophers object because they think they see some presuppositions at work – but generally those presuppositions are both reasonable, and can be backed up with yet more argument from observations about the world.

Are New Atheists racists? No. While not wishing to make any absolute statement, this is about as close as we might get to one. There is the positive belief, as a conclusion of contemplating humanism, evolution, biology, that race is a rather poor distinguishing factor. Race is often interpreted through the visual appearances of skin colour and cultural identity, but given that those alone make no significant distinction between humans, New Atheists are thorough anti-racists. Of course any human can have racist tendencies that the hide or suppress, so it’s not beyond doubt that all New Atheists are not racists – but then this applies to all humans, including the critics of New Atheists.

All the charges of racism I’ve seen aimed at new Atheists have been just actual lies, or lies by conflating religion with race. The latter is actually a racist move in itself, for it is explicitly these opponents that are identifying people of a religion with race, while the New Atheists make the distinction. And of course New Atheists have many anti-religious atheist allies that would be from the same genetic background as the supposed targets of New Atheist racism, but let’s not mention that in the presence of the hypocrites.

There have been and continue to be some despicable claims made that the criticism of Islam by New Atheists is racist. This is at best understandable coming from people of different cultures that have been subject to racism because of their culture, religion or skin colour – it’s easy to be consumed by the anti-western rhetoric and a complete misunderstanding of New Atheism. It’s understandable that Muslims will object to their faith being criticised, though there are many examples of Muslims lying boldly about what atheists say, and about New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris. But the most heinous lies come from fellow atheists, and those of the A+ agenda, or the #LimpLogicLiberals that have a factional axe to grind. Most commonly this lie is perpetuated by the likes of Glenn Greenwald, and is even bought into by otherwise rational people like Cenk Uygur, at the behest of the lying Reza Aslan. It may seem extreme to call out such people as purveyors of lies, but there’s plenty of evidence for such a claim.

Some Sources

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
I disagree with a few things here, but overall it’s a fair description. I disagree particularly with the section 5, on Secular Morality. I disagree with its take on morality, and to some extent disagree with its take on what New Atheists think about morality. But I can go into that again some time. Section 8, on criticisms, gives the impression that most of it is epistemological and philosophical generally, but it fails to engage with the criticism from other liberal atheists that might have much the same philosophical perspective that the New Atheists have, where criticism is directed firmly, if unjustifiably in my view, at the approach New Atheists take to the criticism of religion, and of Islam in particular.

Good old Wikipedia
A common complaint is that New Atheists present too literal a vie of religion – a point made by, who else, but the more sophisticated theologian that doesn’t buy the literalist take on the Bible and Quran. But the real issue here is that it is they, the sophisticates, that are in the minority in religious belief, in that sufficient Christians and Muslims hold to enough of the bad ideas in their holy texts to make the New Atheist criticism currently salient to the social effects of religion. And then there’s that totally fucked up opinion from Noam Chomsky. In what sense is writing a few books and appearing at speaking events or on TV ‘bludgeoning’ anyone? Its exactly the sort of freedom of expression that Chomsky engages in when he publishes his views. It is precisely not the ‘bludgeoning’ act of imposing apostasy, blasphemy, heresy rulings and punishments on people that religions engage in. The New Atheist rhetoric may be blunt, to the point, and direct, unlike the slimy slippery language of the religious, but that is one of its great features – the clarity of thought and reasoning from New Atheists outshines the fluff and magic of religion, and much of the philosophical hang wringing of people like Chomsky. And of course we can rely on the usual unsubstantiated claims of New Atheist bigotry, often from supporters of religious bigotry – it’s always a good move to convince your fellow theists that the atheist opposition is exactly what has been aimed at your religion, so much so that in Islam there’s a term for this common method: Takfir. Look it up.

Rational Wiki
This is a mixed site, with some good stuff, but also with an agenda in the mind of its creator. And it can get a little dated. For example, as well as listing the four horsmen, it also adds PC Myers as a ‘partner in crime’. Well, that ship has sailed. PZ Myers is one of the A+ members most critical of Dawkins and Harris, and the followers of Myers are about as anti-Dawkins and anti-Harris as you can get. But these guys are a whole other story.

Yes Mehdi Hasan, I Condem Those Atheists Texts Calling for Lashes, Stoning, Death

Mehdi Hasan is up to his usual rhetorical tricks.

On his Facebook page he links to the Richard Dawkins comments in the Huffington Post piece: Atheist Richard Dawkins Condemns Chapel Hill Shootings Of Three Muslim Students.

His comment accompanying the post:

Will we now see lots of pieces calling for ‘reform’ of New Atheism and a search for ‘moderate’ New Atheists? ‪#‎justasking‬

So, Mehdi, if you think New Atheism is in need of reform, can you point to the New Atheist scriptures that Craig Hicks might have followed in order to justify the killing?

Can you point to New Atheist scripture that demands lashes for sex outside marriage, or stoning of adulterers? Can you point to any New Atheist scriptures that denounce atheists for apostasy, for those converting to Islam or Christianity?

Islam needs reforming so that the barbaric tenets contained in the Quran and Hadith cannot be used as an excuse to commit violence in the name of Islam.

What exactly do you think there is in New Atheism that needs reforming? You want ‘moderate’ New Atheists? New Atheism is already moderate: free speech, freedom of belief, no special privilege for any belief systems, secular government (not Christian, not Islamic, not atheist, …). There are no ‘apostasy’ rules trying to prevent atheists becoming believers. There are no ‘blasphemy’ rules denouncing anti-atheist rhetoric. There’s no lashing for sex outside marriage; no stoning of adulterers.

Exactly what reforms would you like, Mehdi?

I think I get it, you’re just whining because your precious prophet is lampooned? You don’t like to see outsiders criticise your faith?


Mehdi Hasan, like many Muslims commenting on criticisms of Islam, or on the association of self-declared Muslims doing violence in the name of their prophet, isn’t happy that Islam gets the blame when so many self-declared Muslims join ISIS and other organisations. He’s not convinced that Islam is the problem, even when they quote the passages that inspire their violence.

Look, Mehdi isn’t a violent Jihadist, so how can anyone blame Islam?

Well, it’s quite easy to explain. Mehdi and all moderate Muslims that still believe that the Quran is the inerrant word of God are stuck in denial. They have to start making up bullshit excuses about ‘context’ to explain when it’s reasonable to stone a woman to death.

And, as Coel Hellier pointed out in a recent post Mainstream Islam is not moderate.

Can we blame Richard Dawkins for this act by Craig Hicks?

This is one of the most ridiculous posts I’ve seen today:


Adeel Ahmed, you’re misguided.

There are currently many people pointing out that Craig Hicks did this in the name of atheism, that he’s an Atheist terrorist.

I think it quite legitimate to call Hicks a terrorist. It’s quite legitimate to call him an Atheist terrorist, if the reports are confirmed that Craig Hicks did this in the name of Atheism.

But that doesn’t suddenly present some parallel with the case made that Islam is a significant component of the terror committed in the name of Islam. Islam has texts that can be used to justify terrorist acts. Atheism does not. Atheism has very little in the way of doctrine. It is merely the lack of belief in gods. The ‘strident’ New Atheists are merely more outspoken about this and more willing to point out the faults of religions. That doesn’t make atheism amenable to the justification of terrorism. What Hicks has done is not only not justifiable by Atheism, New Atheism, Humanist, Scepticism, it is totally antithetical to everything that Atheists, New Atheists, Humanists and Sceptics tend to believe in.

Does that then mean Muslims have a case too, in denouncing violence in the name of Islam as antithetical to Islam, the religion of peace? No, because the claim that Islam is the religion of peace only applies when Muslims ignore the violent and warlike aspects of Islam.

If you’re an atheist bent on violence you have to depart from the values usually subscribed to by Atheists, New Atheists, Humanists and Sceptics.

If you’re a Muslim bent on violence you can find justification for it in your holy texts.

Do you see the difference? #‎justasking‬.

Here’s a more rational assessment, from Maajid Nawaz. A lesson for Mehdi Hasan.


Josephus on Christianity Is Hearsay

There are a bunch of people building reputations on the historicity of Jesus – whether the man Jesus existed, what he did, what he claimed to do.

Christians want, no, need, Jesus to be a real mortal man, at least, because they depend on that in order to make their next set of claims about his divinity, his miracles, and most of all, the resurrection.

Non-Christian scholars go to great lengths to show not only that the information we have a bout Jesus is unreliable, but in some cases it is so flawed they think he didn’t even exist.

In history it really helps make your case if there are some independent sources that contribute facts to a story to give us some confidence in the story. One area where Christian scholars fail so badly it amounts to professional dishonesty is regard this independent evidence claim.

One source in particular can be relied upon to be behind most claims you hear from Christians if they start telling you there’s ‘plenty’ (a vague often used term) of evidence for the resurrection. When you look at their sources they tend to go something like this:

1 – Many who are not scholars will point to William Lane Craig, and may even give links to his site and some of the pages where he tells us there are ‘plenty’ of independent sources.

2 – When you go to William Lane Craig you will see that he offers Josephus, and Pliny and Tacitus. But the go-to guy in the end is Josephus.

3 – When you’ve gone down this rabbit whole with the Christian and given your reasons why this isn’t independent evidence, they’ll offer some other Christian scholars, who, they assure you, will provide categorical evidence for the resurrection. Of course these sources never do. But where they do claim to be offering evidence you can bet your shirt on it that they will either point to some other source, like William Lane Craig again, or will cite Josephus themselves.

4 – Some Christians will actually try to cite just Josephus – but usually it’s not Josephus directly that they cite but some description of what Josephus contains along with some explanation of why it’s so good. But this is not actually looking at the content of Josephus.

If you’re not familiar with Josephus you could start here: Wikipedia on Josephus

Remember, Josephus was a Jew, captured by Rome, and writing from Rome. Here’s a brief summary with links: Jewish Virtual Library on Josephus. And from there note this: “However, because of Josephus’ proclivity to depend on hearsay and legend, scholars are never sure what to accept as fact.”

Or, you could try this source: Bible Study Tools on Josephus.

Scholarly Opinion on the Reliability Of Extant Josephus Texts

One of the controversies over what is currently available is the extent to which current transcripts are genuine copies of what Josephus actually wrote, or whether they have been modified by Christians to tell a better story. This is the stuff of historical scholarly work – which I’m not qualified to judge, but which has, of course, its Christian non-Christian perspectives.

I am specifically avoiding this angle, because I don’t think it is necessary in order to make my point. And, I have to say, both the Christian and non-Christian scholars seem to be on thin ice. You can judge for your self by reading them – I bet you’ll soon become bored with the detail that makes no difference.

Josephus as Hearsay

I appreciate the historical interests in these old texts, but in the case against Christianity the most obvious criticism of Josephus and other ‘independent’ sources is that they are nothing more than hearsay. Josephus is not evidence for Jesus at all.

At best, if we ignore the controversy of the reliability of the extant texts, then it is nothing more than a report of what Christians were saying they believed.

Whether it’s what Christians reported directly to Josephus, or what Josephus picked up from non-Christian sources telling what Christians were saying, is unknown.

The same is true of course when a Christian source is provided. If a non-Christian hears some stories about Christ, thinks it all sounds pretty good, and becomes a Christian, then this is now a biased Christian source that is peddling what are basically his unreliable sources that made him Christian in the first place.

And so it goes even today.

History Hangs on Threads

This is a problem for history generally. But in most respects it’s unimportant.

I don’t know of anyone today living their lives in such a way that depends categorically on the truth of whether Nero fiddled as Rome burned. If one believed that legend, then came across information that debunks it, it wouldn’t be the end of your world. One has only to say, “Oh well, I was wrong about that.”

Some historical researchers could build academic careers on something that is later debunked. And the same is true in science. But once the facts are establish there’s no hiding place. It may involve the consumption of some humble pie, but then any scholar or researcher worth their salt would get the pie out, and after a hearty meal they’d get on with using the new data.

The Christian Life Based on Hearsay

But in the case of Christianity people build careers and whole lives on the claim that Jesus was God (ignoring theological quibbles on that score) and that he died to save us. All based on nothing better than hearsay.

You go to church, pray to God and Jesus Christ. Maybe you’re a Roman Catholic and you really believe that when the wafer is blessed it turns into the literal body of Christ. Maybe you’re a ‘sophisticated’ theologian and don’t by any of the high church stuff, but still believe in Jesus Christ, Son of God, and the resurrection.

It’s based entirely on hearsay? Yes!

The words of Jesus? Put into his mouth entirely by the writers of the Gospels. There is zero evidence Jesus said any of it. When reported in the Gospels some time after the death of Jesus (again, we’re not even demanding proof the mortal man existed here) then it is nothing more than hearsay.

It is no less hearsay than anything a Muslim might claim about Mohammed. Muslims can even make a better claim to the historicity of Mohammed – though of course what Mohammed’s followers tell us Mohammed was told by Gabriel, who was instructed by Allah, is several levels of hearsay too.

I don’t think enough is made of this. Christianity is a religion based entirely on hearsay. But Josephus is a Christian trump card they are allowed to get away with far too often.

Religious Language Frustrates Michael Nugent

Michael Nugent tries to grasp and challenge the meaning of the mystical words of Swami Purnananda as the latter explains something or other about his beliefs.

I’ve always been fascinated by how well artists capture moving water. I remember visiting Niagara Falls, and I tried to pick out and follow a pattern in the flow of water as it went over the edge – no sooner had I selected one fast moving ripple to examine its form and it was gone, and the water just kept on coming. Swami Purnananda’s meaningless words just keep on coming, and Michael Nugent has barely a moment to grasp each one and impart some sense onto it.

Swami Purnananda, “I frame in poetic language admittedly”

And there lies the problem of the whole of religious mysticism.

If you keep telling yourself this stuff enough the brain comes to believe it. The brain builds a contextually consistent and eventually familiar conceptual framework where all this stuff ties together and forms some ‘holistic’ explanation that has ephemeral ties to the real word through a careful selection of words – and it helps here if the words are vague or of multiple meanings so they are protected from literal evidential analysis. The whole system can then stand alone, in the brain, detached from empirical scrutiny.

I guess that’s why it takes so long to become a mystic or a priest. Until the brain is thoroughly programmed in this poetic language the brain’s owner is a struggling novice.

In a way I think it’s very much like learning some difficult scientific or mathematical concept. I know from experience that I’ve struggled to really ‘get it’ some times. Evolution, thermodynamics – there are many topics which can seem difficult to grasp until you have many of the bits pinned down, then it all clicks and you get it. I can see why those without a lot of background can find evolution and thermodynamics and other scientific ideas so incredible, and why they look for other explanations.

The scientific conceptual systems succeed or fail on the extent to which they stand up to the empirical challenge. Not so religion.

It doesn’t seem to matter to many people that the religious mystical stuff isn’t grounded in empirical evidence, or that it doesn’t actually work at doing anything – outside all the psychological benefits they find in their communities of common belief. Of course they have to ignore as much as possible how easily such unsupported beliefs can lead to atrocities in the real world; and where they can they blame those outcomes on something else. Many must be finding that deflection tough to sustain in the face of the proclaimed faith of ISIS – though even some atheists still try valiantly to excuse religious belief of being open to any interpretation at all.

Deepities indeed, as was pointed out in an early comment on Michael Nugent’s blog.

Ophelia Benson’s Medicine

There’s some serious hypocrisy flying around some quarters of the Free Thought Blogs. Ophelia Benson, PZ Myers and others are fighters for social justice, the feminist cause and the battle against sexual abuse and rape, which can only be applauded, and would be, were it not for their methods.

Michael Nugent has posted another clarification of his position on these matters. He has become the target for their rhetoric and misrepresentation, because he has objected to their rhetoric and misrepresentation when it has been directed at others, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Michael Shermer. It seems ‘any critic of mine is a friend of my enemies and therefore an enemy of mine’.

[UPDATE – while writing this I see that Nugent has another post up covering the fact that Myers has not responded to Nugent’s call for an apology, after Myers said Nugent defends rapists.]

I’ve covered some of this before, specifically about how Dawkins is being misrepresented, and on the hypocrisy of Myers complaining about the ill-considered rhetoric of Dawkins and yet engaging in similar ill-consideration himself that resulted in misrepresentations of Dawkins. There I also pointed to Michael Nugent’s response to it all as one of the only sane assessments on the matter. And it’s as a result of Nugent’s criticisms there that Ophelia Benson continued her attack on Nugent, and had Adam Lee jumping in with both feet – firmly in his mouth. And Nugent responds again, with restraint and calm reason.

And it goes around some more, and Nugent finds he has to make yet another clarification of the misrepresentations of him.

You’ll notice that Nugent’s posts are very specific in addressing his attackers, very calm and considered, and necessarily spell out, repeatedly, in great detail, where they are going wrong. Some comments on his posts have suggested he give up and ignore the attacks, rather than give them air time. There’s always the danger that he’ll suffer the TL;DR short attention span response. But others, I think rightly, are supportive of Nugent’s efforts as being worth the trouble. The smears and misrepresentations should be documented in this manner, for the record.

The hypocrisy of Benson, Myers and others of the #FTBullies extends to their unwillingness to criticise the many viscous followers they have on their blogs. There are some clearly false accusations flying around about Dawkins and Harris, and latterly Nugent, such as calling them misogynists, or even supporters of rapists. In Nugent’s case Myers seems to have been pretty clear that he considers Nuget a defender of rapists that comment on Nugent’s blog, and holds Nugent responsible for that in some way; were it true in any case – and Myers offers no evidence of this claim.

Maybe I’ve missed it, but I haven’t seen Myers or Benson comment on their own blogs with something like, “OK guys, I’m criticising Dawkins and Harris for careless or even harmful rhetoric. Let’s not get into that ourselves.” Instead, they continue with the misrepresentations, and allow the more extreme of their followers to jump to the nastier conclusions on their behalf [UPDATE: except in the latest Twitter outburst Myers is responsible for all his own work].

I thought it might be helpful to Myers, Benson and Lee and others engaged in these campaigns against Dawkins, Harris and Nugent, if I quoted from a book a read some time ago. It was aimed at the sloppy thinking and failure to search for the truth, in favour of one’s emotive commitments, and directed generally against the religious, New Agers and post-modern relativists and other pedallers of flim-flam [h/t Pinker]. I’ve inserted and emphasised where I think Benson and co. might not get the message from the original.

Confusion and obfuscation are arguably the best way to go. Obfuscation is legal, it’s easy, there’s always an abundant supply and it often does the trick. The more unclear it is exactly what one is arguing, the more trouble one’s opponents will have in refuting one’s claims.

And this is why Nugent’s posts are increasingly detailed in refuting the charges from Myers et al.

Asking unanswerable questions is an inconclusive but useful tactic. … The fact that no one can answer such questions is taken by the pure of heart and limpid of mind to entail divine [self-appointed] explanation. The fact that such explanation allows the questions to be asked all over again seems not to trouble the divinely [self-appointedly] inclined.

In fact, the contortions are a giveaway not only that the explanation is not the right one, but that something is badly wrong with the method of generating the explanation, that things are back to front [mirroring the Vatican?], that the enquirer has started, not with a desire to produce an explanation, but with the desire to produce a particular explanation, or a particular kind of explanation.

What should trump what? Should rational enquiry, sound evidence, norms of accuracy, logical inference trump human needs, desires, fears, hopes? Or should our wishes and beliefs, politics and morality, dreams and visions be allowed to shape our decisions about what constitutes good evidence, what criteria determine whether an explanation is supported by evidence or not, what is admissible and what isn’t?

The truth is important to us, but so are our needs and desires and hopes and fears. Without them we wouldn’t even recognise ourselves. Without them, we think, we would merely be something like an adding machine. An adding machine can get at the truth, given the right input, but it doesn’t care. We want the truth but we also want to care – wanting the truth is indeed inseparable from caring. We want it, we care about it, it matters, and so do various other things we want and care about, some of which are threatened by the truth. … But we have to choose. … If we’ve never bothered to decide that truth matters, and that it shouldn’t be subject to our wishes – that, in short, wishful thinking [that everyone should agree with our gross characterisations] is bad thinking – then we are likely to be far less aware of the tension. We simply allow ourselves, without much worry or reflection, to assume that the way humans want the world to be is the way the world is [populated by privileged old white male misogynists, as we see it], more or less by definition – and endemic confusion and muddle [and the need for endless clarification] is the result.

Religion and related modes of thinking such as New Age, Wicca, paganism, the vaguely named ‘spirituality’, [and the social justice wars?] are where this outcome is most obvious. Public discourse features talk of [god stuff, or charges of rape] … without apparently stopping to notice that there may be reasons to prefer true beliefs rather than false ones.

What reasons? There are many. One is truth is something of an all-or-nothing proposition. It is intimately related to concepts such as consistency, thoroughness, universal applicability, and the like. If one decides that truth doesn’t matter in one area what is to prevent one deciding it doesn’t matter in any, in all?

Our internal private thoughts might not matter at all. … But how we influence each other, how we teach – by writing, by journalism, by talking on the radio, on platforms, in churches, in mosques, in classrooms, [how we use blogs to espouse rape claims rather than official channels] – it does matter. If we are going to influence people, it’s important we get it right.

If we minimize true facts that we dislike too often, we may lose sight of the fact that it is our reaction and degree of attention that is subject to our wills, and start to think that the facts themselves are subject to our wills. But on the whole they’re not.

But then this …

There are fields where indifference to truth is no handicap – advertising, PR, …, lobbying, marketing, In fact there are whole large, well paid, high status areas of the economy where truth-scepticism, wishful thinking, fantasy, suspension of disbelief, deletion of the boundary between dreams and reality, are not only not a handicap, but essential to the enterprise. … We need our dreams and stories, our imaginaries. They are good for us. We need the cognitive rest from confronting reality all day, we need to be able to imagine alternatives, we need the pleasure of fantasy. But we also need to hang on to our awareness of the difference between dreams and reality.

No! Some of these, advertising, PR, lobbying, marketing – and blogging unsubstantiated rape claims and naming as perpetrators people who have had no recourse to justice – are precisely the areas where we are seeing no handicap to the perpetrators of lies, but where the wider social handicap is far greater.

There is a profound irony in the situation [super fucking irony in this case] – in postmodernist epistemic relativism. It is thought to be, and often touted as, emancipatory. It is supposed to set us all free: free from all those coercive repressive restrictive hegemonic totalizing old ideas. From white male western reason and science, from the requirement to heed the boundary between science and pseudo science, from the need to offer genuine evidence for our versions of history, from scholars who point out we have our facts wrong. … Take away reasoned argument and the requirement for reference to evidence – by discrediting them via deconstruction and rhetoric, via scare quotes and mocking capital letters, and what can be left other than force of one kind or another? … This is emancipatory? Not in our view. It is not emancipatory because it helps emotive rhetoric to prevail over reason and evidence, which means it helps falsehood prevail over truth.

The book? “Why Truth Matters” – Ophelia Benson, Jeremy Stangroom.

Super fucking irony.

John Gray’s Poor Thinking on Dawkins

For a philosopher that likes to point out the nuances of the philosophy he thinks Dawkins misses out on, Gray is awfully sloppy with his own thinking – sloppy or malicious, possibly both.

“The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins – His atheism is its own kind of narrow religion”

In what way is Dawkins close minded? Closed to ideas that lack evidence to support them, for as long as they lack evidence, but open minded enough to consider evidence when presented? Is that so bad? In what way is the atheism of Dawkins different from the atheism of Gray? Does Gray hold to some greater open mindedness to the possibility of some intelligent entity creator than does Dawkins when he expresses his views?

When Gray quotes Dawkins from The Selfish Gene wondering if visiting aliens might wonder if humans are intelligent enough to notice Evolution at work, Gray seems to get the idea that Dawkins is some kind of supremacist.

“There is his equation of superiority with cleverness: the visiting aliens are more advanced creatures than humans because they are smarter and know more than humans do.”

One has to wonder by what means Gray thinks some alternative, ‘less’ intelligent, aliens might have got here to do the observing. I would expect, as a first approximation, that any aliens clever enouch to reach us across the vastness of open space have figured out some pretty damned clever technology for doing so.

So, yes, there is a sense in which cleverness is superior – superior to dumbness. Perhaps Gray thinks we should promote philosophy professors based on lack of cleverness, stupidity. Perhaps they did at the London School of Economics and Political Science when Gray was there. Thay might explain some things.

“The theory of evolution by natural selection is treated not as a fallible theory—the best account we have so far of how life emerged and developed — but as an unalterable truth, which has been revealed to a single individual of transcendent genius. There cannot be much doubt that Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist.”

This really is grossly sloppy research by some dumb ass philosopher. Of course evolutionary theory is fallible in many respects, as are all theories in science. And yes it’s the best we have yet. But if Gray would like to offer some hint at were it is so wrong that there is much chance of its basic principles being overthrown by some future theory he’s welcome to illustrate them.

And yes, there can be much doubt that “Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist” in any crude and derogatory sense that this statement from Gray implies. Is Dawkins an evangelist for evolution over crack-pot creationism? Sure he is. No doubt Gray has lauded the benefits of philosophy in his time. Pity he doesn’t practice in this piece some of the critical thinking philosophy is supposed to encourage.

“Among these traits, it is Dawkins’s identification with Darwin that is most incongruous. No two minds could be less alike than those of the great nineteenth-century scientist and the latter-day evangelist for atheism. Hesitant, doubtful, and often painfully perplexed, …”

Incongruous, because Darwin and Dawkins have some personality differences? Incongruous because Dawkins has the wealth of genetics to back up his perspective on the reliability of evolution that Darwin didn’t? Well, what would you expect? Of course they were different in many ways, and it’s plain stupid to try to turn the emulative admiration Dawkins has for Darwin into supposing Dawkins imagines himself to actually be the Darwin of his day. Of course Darwin was more hesitant and perplexed by the ideas he was formulating while now Dawkins is more confident that Darwin was on the right track.

“… Darwin understood science as an empirical investigation in which truth is never self-evident and theories are always provisional.”

And Gray’s dishonest scuralous implication is that Dawkins doesn’t understand that – when Dawkins expresses that opinion regularly. You only have to listen to Dawkins rather than just cherry picking what you like, or what you heard someone else report, in order to see the misrepresentation going on here.

“If science, for Darwin, was a method of inquiry that enabled him to edge tentatively and humbly toward the truth, for Dawkins, science is an unquestioned view of the world.”

Is it any wonder so many of us dispair at the state of philosophy when philosophers like Gray come out with such bullshit. The fact of the matter is that science is not the unquestioned view of the world, but the view questioned by scientists all the time. That’s what it is to do science – to question one’s views of the world. When one then comes up with some pretty good answers that doesn’t turn you suddenly into some absolutist for science dogma, though that’s how science is often presented when one wants to attack a sientist.

I think Gray is mistaking the view of science that Dawkins and others have by comparing it to their view of ‘other ways of knowing’, which turn out to be unreliable flim flam. Maybe it’s the utter inadequacy of religion and philosophy to tell us anything useful about the world, such that when Dawkins points that out Gray sees him claiming instead that science is perfect: “Oh, our philosophy and theology is hopeless is it? And I suppose you think your science is perfect!”

“The Victorians are often mocked for their supposed certainties, when in fact many of them (Darwin not least) were beset by anxieties and uncertainties. Dawkins, by contrast, seems never to doubt for a moment the capacity of the human mind — his own, at any rate—to resolve questions that previous generations have found insoluble.”

The irony leaps out from the pages of the New Republic! Just as many cautious tentative Victorian scientists were misunderstood for claiming certainty, so here we have Gray misunderstanding Dawkins. How can a professional philosopher make such glaring errors of thought? Read Dawkins, Mr Gray. Or just play a few of his short video clips on YouTube. You’ll see he prefaces and loads much of what he says with contingency. Again, you are perhaps mistaking his derision of ‘other ways of knowing’ for some claim that scence is perfrect. See the distinction?

Or, perhaps read someone with a better appreciation of Dawkins having actually met the man. This is Andrew Anthony, “There’s a smoothness to the way he carries himself – a touch of the Nigel Havers – that could no doubt be construed as an arrogance befitting his intellectual status, but in conversation he is restrained, even hesitant, and faultlessly modest throughout our interview.” – My emphasis, my way of spelling out Gray’s error.

Gray covers the period of Dawkins growing up in what was the dying stages of Britain’s colonial Africa, and his days at school. Gray picks up on how Dawkins can’t remember having any empathetic feelings for a bullied boy at school. And Gray leaps on this and extrapolates to how Dawkins bullies the religious now.

Except Gray, as with many critics of Dawkins, totally scews it up. He gets it dead wrong. Dawkins does not bully the religious by any stretch of the imagination – except if you stretch your imagination so far you event your own caricature of Dawkins that is nothing like the man.

When you see Dawkins rail against the most obnoxious of theists that are persecuting homosexuals, promoting creationism, opposing democracy, abusing children, then if this is your sole point of reference it’s easy to see how you can get it so wrong. But Gray is supposed to be a sharp thinker, a philosopher. Where’s his research?

Perhaps Gray could learn something from that one article and its comments. But there’s plenty more. You only have to actually listen to Dawkins, or not read his works looking for your own version of what you think he says. Or simply Google for the actual opinions of Dawkins. Read his website. I’m afraid Gray has perhaps done too little research into the man whose biography he is critiquing, or perhaps has a predetermined agenda and is taking this opportunity to air it. It’s not difficult to find nearly every piece by Dawkins is the antithesis of the caricature Gray is presenting.

“Exactly how Dawkins became the anti-religious missionary with whom we are familiar will probably never be known.”

More failed research.

So what did turn Dawkins into an anti-religious missionary, as opposed to an ‘old atheist’? Well, 9/11 played a big part in that, as we can see here in a copy of a piece from the Guardian. And from there we have The God delusion. But long before that he was objecting to the Creationist opposition to evolution. And, of course, he was charged with the job promoting science, when from 1995 to 2008 Richard Dawkins was the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. It doesn’t take much research to have a fair stab at “how Dawkins became the anti-religious missionary with whom we are familiar” – something Gray seems totally incapable of trying.

“From what he writes here, I doubt he knows himself.”

Then, Mr Gray, you clearly haven’t read very much of what he writes. Or you’ve been mallisciously selective.

“At no point has Dawkins thrown off his Christian inheritance. Instead, emptying the faith he was taught of its transcendental content, he became a neo-Christian evangelist. A more inquiring mind would have noticed at some point that religion comes in a great many varieties, with belief in a creator god figuring in only a few of the world’s faiths and most having no interest in proselytizing. It is only against the background of a certain kind of monotheism that Dawkins’s evangelical atheism makes any sense.”

This is just plain dumb. I mean really dumb. Being ‘evangelicaal’ is merely to express a keenness for something one believes in, to the point of thinking it worth promoting actively, stridently if you will. But hold on …

“In turning away from the milk-and-water Anglicanism in which he had been reared…”

If his ‘evangelical’ nature is grounded in his Christianity, and yet his Christianity was ‘milk-and-water Anglicanism’, Gray’s appraisal doesn’t really add up. You are contradicting yourself, Mr Gray. Unforgivable for a philosopher endowed with the critical thinking philosophy offers, surely.

The real difference between being an outspoken atheist and an evangelical Christian, is that the latter has no grounds in evidence upon which to base his case, while the former, being claims no more that a failure to be convinced of Christianity or other religions in the light of no positive evidence to support them. So, the stridency of Dawkins to me seems more like that of the mystified Brian in Python’s Life of Brian, addressing the throng of people who mistake him for a messiah:

Brian, “Please, please listen. I’ve got one or two things to say. Look. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals. You’re all different. You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.”

And when Brian says, “You’re all different” and one of the crowd comically responds “I’m not”, I can’t help but think of the comic hapless Gray uttering a futile self-contradiction.

A couple of other ironies here. The crowd in this scene are the religious, looking to Brian. Of course Dawkins is not looked to as the messiah by the religious (though often mistaken for the anti-Christ) or by atheists. The stridency of Dawkins is that of Brian telling the religious to think for themselves instead of following holy preachers and silly books. The other irony is that this is also how many religious people, and some atheists, like PZ Myers and crew, see those of us who are atheists that defend Dawkins against these stupid attacks. We don’t follow Dawkins in the sense they imply; but as with any good thinker it’s worth taking note of what they say. And it’s worth pointing out when they are misrepresented – and Gray isn’t on novel ground here; he merely echoes the same tripe that we get from others.

“Even more remarkable is Dawkins’s inveterate literal-mindedness.”

Gray goes on to agree with Dawkins that some Christians, as Dawkins says, believe in original sin. But Gray here is lamenting the fact that Dawkins observes this in Christianity as if gray thinks Dawkins believes it himself.

Gray tries to put Dawkins right – but about something for which Dawkins was never wrong, because Dawkins never professed it:

“Even so, it [original sin] is an idea that contains a vital truth: evil is not error, a mistake of the mind, a failure of understanding that can be corrected by smarter thinking. It is something deeper and more constitutive of human life itself. The capacity and propensity for destruction goes with being human. One does not have to be religious to acknowledge this dark fact.”

Dawkins is an evolutionary biologists. Does Gray really think this is the inate nastiness of life that Dawkins is railing against? What a straw man to pull out of one’s ass. Dawkins is arguing against the original sin of Christianity, not the varied and sometimes unpleasant behavioural tendencies of humans.

“As an atheist myself, it is a view I find no difficulty in sharing.”

And neither would Dawkins. But that perspective on innate biologically determined human tendencies isn’t original sin, is it. The Gray analogy is that both Christians and atheists agree humans sometimes do bad things to each other; but it’s their explanations that are so different that makes the criticism of Original Sin justified, while still allowing us atheists to think there are other reasons for our occasional nastiness. Nothing that Gray has said on this amounts to any valid criticism of Dawkins at all, though Gray is passing it of as if it is.

“Quite apart from the substance of the idea, there is no reason to suppose that the Genesis myth to which Dawkins refers was meant literally.”

Yet more utter bollocks. In the week in which the current and maybe most liberal of recent Popes professes belief in actual angels it is totally ridiculous of sophisticated theologians and accommodationist atheists like Gray to play this game of pretending that hardly any of the religious believe the literal interpretation of biblical bollocks. Many do. And many will skirt around the subject to duplicitous degrees to avoid owning it.

“Coarse and tendentious atheists of the Dawkins variety prefer to overlook the vast traditions of figurative and allegorical interpretations with which believers have read Scripture.”

This is yet more nonsense. Of course Dawkins criticises the literalist. And the allegorists too. And all shades in between. Maybe the reason you see Dawkins objecting to Biblical Literalism so often is that he’s arguing with Biblical Literalists of varying degrees. Even in debate with the previous Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, he tried to pin him down on issues like the resurrection, it is typical of Williams to skirt around it, but you can bet plenty of Christians believe it is literally true. Instead of addressing that duplicity Gray picks on what is most likely the least popular literal interpretation of the bible, the six days of genesis. But still, the Pope believes in Adam and Eve. Of course Dawkins is leteralist when addressing literalists.

Gray points us to Augustine and Philo of Alexandria as non-literalists. But their theological interpretations of their beliefs are not universal. So, did Augustine think the resurrection didn’t really happen? Does Augustine believe there is no actual literal God? This sophisticated theology that tries to explain away religious nonsense doesn’t mean that there are no literalists in other respects that Dawkins cannot address.

Has Gray never heard of the No True Scotsman fallacy? Surely he has. So why is he playing that hand here?

“In treating religion as a set of factual propositions, Dawkins is mimicking Christianity at its most fundamentalist.”

Hold on. If Christians are not the literalists that Gray says Dawkins is mistaking them for, then how can he be mimicking a ‘factual’ literalist Christianity? Gray doesn’t make sense. He’s losing sight of his own arguments in his commitment to having a go at Dawkins.

Gray moves on to Dawkins and memes.

“There are many difficulties in talk of memes, including how they are to be identified. Is Romanticism a meme? Is the idea of evolution itself a meme, jumping unbidden from brain to brain? My suspicion is that the entire “theory” amounts to not much more than a misplaced metaphor.”

And that use of meme as metaphor is pretty much where Dawkins leaves it too. But it’s a word where the spread of morphology through genes is an analogue for the spread of behaviours through ideas as memes. It’s a fair metaphor. It doesn’t have to be an established scientific theory to be useful. Come on, Mr Gray, you’re a philosopher, a member of a discipline renowned for making up bollocks and presenting it as theory.

“The larger problem is that a meme-based Darwinian account of religion is at odds with Dawkins’s assault on religion as a type of intellectual error. If Darwinian evolution applies to religion, then religion must have some evolutionary value.”

No it isn’t at odds. It’s just multiple perspectives. And it need not have evolutionary value if it’s a spandrel. The propensity to see agency were there is none may indeed have had some benefit – better safe than sorry. But it’s quite feasible that an evolved behaviour can morph under social thinking into some unhelpful monstrosity. I guess Gray doesn’t have any evolutionary explanation for tight jeans, pipe smoking, Boy Scouts or any other human concoction. But there they are.

“But in that case there is a tension between naturalism (the study of humans and other animals as organisms in the natural world) and the rationalist belief that the human mind can rid itself of error and illusion through a process of critical reasoning.”

Not so. The human mind as a behavioural process of a physical brain is still subject to cause and effect of the natural world. My brain is caused to find religious belief an error of thinking, by my brain’s caused modelling of the thinking process under empiricism. That effect in turn causes my brain to engage in critical thinking in order to try to persuade believers they are wrong. If my verbal behaviour, as received by a believing brain causes that believing brain to adopt a different perspective then that believing brain may become a non-believing brain. All that is a natural process of mechanistic human brains. And that my brain uses the meme metaphor for religion and sees it as an error does not make any of that inconsistent. Many philosophers simply can’t dig deep enough into determinism and physicalism to follow where they lead.

“To be sure, Dawkins and those who think like him will object that evolutionary theory tells us how we got where we are, but does not preclude our taking charge of ourselves from here on.”

Correct. We are caused to think we are in charge of ourselves. Free will is an illusion.

“If we “are” survival machines, it is unclear how “we” can decide anything. “

Because we have brains that are somewhat isolated from our environment but ultimately caused by it to be what we are. The term ‘decide’ relates to the logical process of decision. A computer makes decisions. It is programmed to do so. But with non-deterministic (to us and it) inputs it’s decisions can lead to unexpected novel outcomes. So decision making is really another perspective on causal systems. The decision making of a computer does consists at its most basic as an interaction of electrons and ions in electronic devices. That of a brain consists of the interaction of neurons.

“The idea of free will, after all, comes from religion and not from science.”

Mostly, that’s true. The dualist free will of the soul or mind is illusory, under naturalism. There’s no evidence of any spooky stuff that can bypass the causal nature of the matter of the brain.

“Science may give us the unvarnished truth — or some of it — about our species. Part of that truth may prove to be that humans are not and can never be rational animals.”

I disagree. Rationality is a label we give to the mechanistic processing of data that goes on in a human mind – the decision making. It is basically causal elements interacting.

“Religion may be an illusion, but that does not mean science can dispel it.”

Sloppy writing from a philosopher again. Religion is not an illusion. Religion is an actual human social behavioural phenomenon that includes an aspect of those brains believing things to be true for which there is no evidence. Science does dispel it, sufficiently, because of the lack of evidence for it. Typical: a philosopher allows his mind to coalesce science’s lack of supporting evidence for religious claims into his understanding of logical disproof of religious belief.

“On the contrary, science may well show that religion cannot be eradicated from the human mind. Unsurprisingly, this is a possibility that Dawkins never explores.”

First sentence is right, in that science might show that religion cannot be eradicated, by natural evolutionary means. Then again it might not show that at all. It might show, had we access to similar minds to ours but evolved independently, that indeed it is possible to not have religious belief. And it might be possible to show (I would expect it is possible) that religous belief could be eradicated from brains by artificial means.

The second sentence is Gray talking out of his ass again. Of course Dawkins has considered this.

“For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible.”

Dawkins does address this sometimes, but as far as I can tell gives little significance to it. He’s not specifically a philosopher of science, so perhaps it doesn’t get his dander up the way many problems of religion do – i.e. evolution denialism.

“There are many philosophies of science. Among them is empiricism, which maintains that scientific knowledge extends only so far as observation and experiment can reach; realism, which holds that science can give an account of parts of the world that can never be observed; irrealism, according to which there is no one truth of things to which scientific theories approximate; and pragmatism, which views science theories as useful tools for organizing and controlling experience. If he is aware of these divergent philosophies, Dawkins never discusses them. His attitude to science is that of a practitioner who does not need to bother with philosophical questions.”

The problem is that some of these philosophical details are no more than hair splitting in the absence of any evidence to favour any of them specifically. Rather, each and all of them can lead to material naturalism and physicalism. There’s simply no reason to keep re-hashing this stuff, though I appreciate that philosophers earn their money by doing just that.

“It is worth noting, therefore, that it is not as a practicing scientist that Dawkins has produced his assaults against religion. As he makes clear in this memoir, he gave up active research in the 1970s when he left his crickets behind and began to write The Selfish Gene. Ever since, he has written as an ideologue of scientism, the positivistic creed according to which science is the only source of knowledge and the key to human liberation.”

I’m losing count of the misrepresentation in this awful piece by Gray. Let’s get it straight.

Science is the broader label for a group of human activities that adopt the very same faculties that all humans have: reason and evidence, observing and interacting with the world and reasoning about it. This is empiricism. A simpler definition of empiricism allows only the sensory experience, but that alone is not what differentiates human brains from other brains. It’s our wider empiricism: observing and interacting with the world and reasoning about it.

On empiricism as an inclusive term for reason and experience: brain neurons and sensory and motor neurons have much in common. The empirical nature of the peripheral neurons isn’t that different from brain neurons. Brain neurons engage in empirical interaction with other brain neurons. There is no magical ‘thinking stuff’ beyond this that we are aware of. Physicalism rules, by default, for lack of evidence for anything else. Get over it.

This is what all humans do. Science is no more than making the effort to do that better, more reliably. The thing is, empiricism is all we have. It IS the only way of knowing, that we know of. There are no other ways of knowing. Science uses the usual human processes and adds method and rigour. That’s the distinction. So, within our one way of knowing, science is the best of it, when it comes to finding out how the world works. The imagination of fantasy may be very enjoyable – and may even be used in science to inspire ideas: many science fiction ideas become scientific goals. But when fantasy is used to proclaim a reality, without any supporting evidence, as in religion, and often in philosophy, then yes, science is much better.

I appreciate Gray has latched onto this Scientism trope. But it really is a poor show for a philosopher not to do the work to find out how humans acquire knowledge.

“If religion comes in many varieties, so too does atheism. Dawkins takes for granted that being an atheist goes with having liberal values (with the possible exception of tolerance).”

Wrong again. Dawkins criticises various ideologies that include a rejection of gods, such as the communist based ideologies of Stalin, Mao and others. Where does Gray get the idea that Dawkins thinks all atheists have liberal values? Is is when Dawkins mentions the liberal values of atheists in the liberal atheist sub-group? Such a misrepresentation would be like accusing the Pope of thinking all Christians are Roman Catholics when he addresses Roman Catholic Christians as Christians. This is just plain stupid from Gray.

“But there is no necessary connection between atheism and hostility to religion, as some of the great Victorian unbelievers understood.”

Yes, we know that already. Dawkins also criticises accommodationist atheists that make excuses for religions.

“One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure.”

Try asking Dawkins, Mr Gray.

“”I am not a good observer,” he [Dawkins] writes modestly. He is referring to his observations of animals and plants, but his weakness applies more obviously in the case of humans. Transfixed in wonderment at the workings of his own mind, Dawkins misses much that is of importance in human beings—himself and others.”

I disagree. He may sometimes miss the stupidity with which his plain speaking can be misunderstood and misrepresented. It may well baffle him how a philosopher such as Gray can miss so much too. But then he might figure, well, he is a philosopher.

“To the best of my recollection, I have met Dawkins only once and by chance, when we coincided at some meeting in London. It must have been in late 2001, since conversation at dinner centered around the terrorist attacks of September 11. Most of those at the table were concerned with how the West would respond: would it retaliate, and if so how? Dawkins seemed uninterested. What exercised him was that Tony Blair had invited leaders of the main religions in Britain to Downing Street to discuss the situation—but somehow omitted to ask a leader of atheism (presumably Dawkins himself) to join the gathering. There seemed no question in Dawkins’s mind that atheism as he understood it fell into the same category as the world’s faiths.”

Has it occurred to you, Mr Gray, that his dismay was really about the way in which one religiously motivated atrocity was going to be compounded by the religiosity of the Bush-Blair righteousness? What do the religious have to say on the matter than, say, someone from the British Humanists Association might not – other than colouring the whole campaign with religious platitudes of well meaning.

“In contrast, Dawkins shows not a trace of skepticism anywhere in his writings. In comparison with Pascal, a man of restless intellectual energy, Dawkins is a monument to unthinking certitude.”

Then, Mr Gray, you really are ignorant of pretty much all of the work and public appearances of Dawkins. And that is an awful position for a philosopher, commenting on an autobiography, of someone you know so little about, and have met only once and not at all intimately enough to extract any useful information from the meeting.

It’s ironic you wonder if Dawkins is aware of how comic he appears to be, when here you are, Mr Gray, making a total buffoon of yourself demonstrating utter ignorance, of Dawkins, of science, and even of aspects of the philosophy material naturalism and empiricism as it plays out in science.

It’s a bit rich when a philosopher starts complaining about how some scientist doesn’t get some philosophical angles when the philosopher has a completely skewed view of what the scientist actually thinks and expresses, about science or philosophy.

It’s Tough Being a Secular Democratic Liberal Muslim

In response to a tweet by Maajid Nawaz.

[UPDATE: 15/11/2014: And Maajid responded – see end]

Maajid Nawaz,

I wish you well, I really do, so I hope you’ll consider this criticism.

On your specific points:

1) Islam is a religious ideology with political requirements built in. How could it not be. Any religion that contains social commentary, prescriptions and proscriptions is inherently political.

2) Sharia is a law or a guide depending on how those implementing it and/or enforcing it use it.

3) Ummah is a political bloc if those building it say it is.

4) Caliphate does mean theocracy if those building it use the Caliphate as part of government – i.e. if religion is the state religion or the religious leaders have powers that control the state, and if the religious leaders determine what religion the politicians must belong to. You know this is standard stuff in Islam, regarding what posts that can be held, what taxes are imposed on non-Muslims. Have I misunderstood? Have many Muslims misunderstood too?

Your secular democratic liberal efforts are to be greatly admired, given your unfortunate history. But if you insist on going down this “Islamism isn’t Islam” route you’ll be making a rod for your own back. While it may pander to moderate and near moderate Muslims, and even dissuade some Islamists from following that path, I feel using tactics like this may well backfire.

Religions have many varieties of sects within them, and the specific intent of the originators is so lost in history and interpretation by those that follow their lead that there is no clear definitive Islam, or Christianity or any other religion. There is no true Islam, and nobody has the authority to declare one. It’s for every religious person to declare what their religion means to them.

If you say you are a Muslim and your holy book is the Quran, I accept your word. If less secular Muslims claim they are Muslims too, I accept their word. If ISIS followers are brandishing the Quran, quoting it, praying based on its teachings, believing in Allah, then they are Muslims, and evidentially so, and I accept their word that they are, even if I like their Islam far less than yours.

In your response to a tweet you said, “your words assume there’s a ‘true’ interpretation of Islam. There’s no ‘true’ interpretation of any religion”. Well, precisely. So are there several Islams, or one? Several true ones or one true one? And who decides which is the true one, or the true many?

I support your efforts to distance moderate democratic secular Islam from ISIS and other extremist ‘Islamist’ versions of Islam, but they are all versions of Islam. Obama and Cameron may be taking your lead in this narrative, but it is a dishonest one – dishonest to reason and evidence. ISIS may not be YOUR Islam, but it is THEIR Islam. Saying that ISIS are not Islamic, or that they are not following the REAL Islam, is just playing the usual takfir word games – you are playing the ISIS game, albeit from a secular democratic liberal perspective.

I read your book, Radical, and I sympathise with your early experiences that took you on your journey, and I deeply respect the role you are trying to play for us all now. I feel you are very sincere. But when you say in your book that you must use the tactics that you learned in Hizb ut-Tahrir I think you need to be careful of the extent to which you use duplicitous language when doing that. Firing up political interest and activism is a great cause, so it would be a shame to sully it with slippery language.

I’m a secular atheist and I disagree with your religious beliefs. But here I accept, respect and support your right to hold your Islamic beliefs. I accept your claim to being a Muslim. And yet I think you are making a mistake playing this game of rejecting what others claim their beliefs to be, over who gets to name it. It’s fine to say “Their Islam is not my Islam”, and “I want a reformed secular democratic liberal Islam”. I think the latter an impossible task without a serious reform of Islam, to the point of being little more than deism – but I support your efforts in that regard.

I find it hard to imagine a ‘true’ Islam that abandons constraints on apostasy, for example, though I’d welcome such an Islam as a step in the right direction. But I think the real problem here, for you and other moderate Muslims, is this business of the inerrancy of the Quran. It contains some verses that like the Old Testament Bible are hardly suitable for modern times; but, it’s the inerrant word of God. That leaves it for anyone to interpret it in either traditional terms or modern terms, and to interpret it as they please. Reforming Islam is a mammoth task while this inerrancy claim persists. And yet if you drop it the Quran loses any power it has. That’s quite a challenge for you.

This business of interpretation is a problem for all religions. It’s not as if the ultimate authority of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, has a history of only decent and good pontifications to its name, but it is a single authority that can be held to account – and it has a lot to account for. But Islam is even more of a problem, for lacking a central authority Islam is open to all comers and all interpretations.

So, I don’t think you have a case for claiming that ISIS and Islamists generally are not Islamic. Your statements in your tweet feel very much like a fatwa: (In this episode I think the person of Mo is played by Maajid Nawaz, no?).

A tweet reply by you on Twitter: “right, so instead of guiding 1.5 billion Muslims to secularism gradually, we’re expecting them all just to apostatise”

That would be nice. I do appreciate what you are trying to do, and the difficulty you face. But I can see right through this abuse of words. Should I be so disrespectful to human intelligence to think that Islamist Muslims don’t see it too? Does the takfir game ever work out? Are you not simply begging to be accused of haram practice of making a false accusation? You’re the Muslim, so I’m asking you. Should I not ask followers of ISIS too? Can you not see the futility of this particular move of disavowing ISIS, as if that clears the good name of Islam?

Best wishes, and I hope you can see your way to taking a clearer route, though it may be a harder one.

Maajid Nawaz response:

There is no “correct” Islam.It is all interpretation (Ijtihād).Only secular pluralism guarantees an equal right for all clerics to interpret.

Consciousness – A Physicalist Perspective

There’s a Youtube video put out by the RI that sees Professor Nicholas Humphrey contemplating the nature of human consciousness.

Here’s the video: The Magic of Consciousness.

Some commenters seem to have trouble understanding how consciousness, and the mind, can be explained by physical processes when the subjective experience is screaming at them that the mind and consciousness are not physical at all. This incredulity extends so far that Deepak Chopra adds his twopenneth; and I suspect that it’s this incredulity, along with his interest in mysticism generally, that has driven his ideas that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe. So, maybe Feng Shui works because setting your grand piano facing south makes it a happy conscious piano? Are piano keys always happy to be the keys of a piano? These are the things you have to think about if Deepak Chopra is to be taken seriously.

I’ll wait for Deepak Chopra to do some science that actually demonstrates this thing consciousness that does not amount to mere subjective perception of one’s own consciousness and the subsequent presumption that others have minds too. Because our own personal experience is all that we have to indicate that consciousness is a phenomenon at all.

If you watch the video you’ll see that Nicholas uses the example of the impossible triangle optical illusion. He refers to the 3-D model of the 2-D impossible triangle, as explained and displayed in this source:

Perceptual Illusions and Brain Models (2 pages).

Gregory: “There are purely optical illusions, where light from the object to the eye is bent by reflection (mirrors) or by refraction (the bent-stick-in-water effect, and mirages).”

But some optical illusions are actually mental illusions, illusions of mental perception. Gregory: “The Poggendorff illusion figure (1860). The straight line crossing the rectangle appears displaced.” The optical properties of the figure do not change as we look at the figure with a ruler along the line, to show it is continuous, or without the ruler, when our brains perceive it as displaced.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 14.58.30

The impossible triangle was traditionally presented as a 2-D drawing of an imagined 3-D figure. Gregory: “The impossible triangle (FIG. 9) (L. S. Penrose and R. Penrose 1958) cannot be seen as an object lying in normal three-dimensional space.” But Gregory presents us with a 3-D model that can be perceived as the impossible triangle from certain positions. We’ll get back to that perception and how it relates to the illusion of consciousness. This is the model used by Nicholas in the RI video.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 14.56.23

We’ll get back to the impossible triangle and its relation to the illusion of consciousness. First, consider the nature of self-awareness, and the subjective view we have of our own minds.

The brain is a self-monitoring system – as are many animals, biological subsystems, and computer systems.

Part of a typical computer’s embedded software monitors signals that represent measures of its own CPU temperature, and if the temperature approaches a value that endangers the CPU the software can fire outputs that shut down the computer. So, if a failed computer fan, or a blocked vent, prevent the cooling system working, this self-monitoring system can protect the CPU. We have mechanisms that are similar in principle but are far more complex that cause us to pull away from hot objects, or to remove clothing when overheated, or to reason about turning down the heating in the house. Computer systems that propel themselves also have to self-monitor: the vacuum cleaners enjoyed as motor vehicles by Youtube cats; or Google’s self-drive cars. Simple brained animals are some way between these computers and humans, performing very complex tasks that integrate monitoring the environment, self-monitoring their own internal states and behaviours, and modifying those states and behaviours in order to achieve some goal – such as satisfying the demands of yet other automatic sub-systems such as the hunger mechanism.

In monitoring itself the brain cannot detect or ‘feel’ the individual neurons clicking away, or the rush of neurochemicals at synapses. It has a different higher level model of itself, that probably, for reasons of evolutionary efficiency, has no need for the fine detail of individual neuronal activity. The result is that the brain has evolved and developed to create a model of itself, which it perceives as the mind. And because it cannot detect the physical detail of its neurons it feels, to itself, as if it is just a free floating mind – it has created its own illusion of being a separate mind, free of its own physical material. The brain responds to chemical activity induced by bodily and other brain functions as emotions. Millennia of philosophy and theology that didn’t understand the neuronal nature of the brain have run with this mind model as if the mind is a real but immaterial entity.

Nicholas refers to the problem of appreciating what pain is, in physical terms. In the illusion of being a detached mind the brain perceives pain as signals. Pain signals are distinguished from non-pain signals by their frequency and not their amplitude. That the brain translates this into a subjective measure that we (or I, where ‘I’ IS the brain as a collective system) experience is no more than the brain’s self-aware ‘mind’ model of the pain stimulus.

So, that’s my basis for tying the ‘mind’ as an illusion to the physical brain that fits with everything in science that demonstrates that physical naturalism works and is therefore a reasonable model of the universe as a whole, and a reasonable model for our consciousness as a brain process.

There appears to remain the issue of this distinction, between the actual world that we perceive and our perception of it, the difference between pain neuronal signals and the perception of pain that doesn’t carry any of the detail of the pain signals – the ‘qualia’ of pain. Personally I don’t see a problem with this. The neurons process action potentials, but the whole brain decodes this as pain sensations. They are different modes, different levels of data.

What’s the alternative? What evidence is there, any scientific evidence, or anything at all other than a subjective feeling, that the mind exists as some immaterial entity, or that consciousness is not an illusion? I don’t think there is any. If you examine claims made by dualists like Chopra, and the naysayers of physicalism that have nothing but uncomfortable incredulity to go by, then you’ll find that they are referring to yet more mental gymnastics that can be incorporated into the same illusory mind model.

So, how does the impossible triangle fit in? The thing is, the impossible triangle of this video is external to the brain. We can change perspective to reveal the error of our perception. The triangle doesn’t change physically – so the ‘optical’ illusion is in the brain, as a mental perceptual illusion. When we change perspective our ‘optically stimulated’ mental illusion is broken. We cannot do this with the brain’s illusion of consciousness and mind. We are stuck with the introspective subjective perspective, of perceiving a mind at work. We cannot change our perspective to reveal the mental illusion that we think is the free mind and its conscious experience. Instead, we use science and reason to figure out that it’s an illusion.

Brain in a Vat

Coel has put up a post on one of philosophy’s favourite topics: Brain in a vat (BIV). I’ll try to get to other sources, such as the Massimo Pigliucci post Coel refers to, but for now I’ll respond to Coel’s post only.

So, “[the BIV problem] supposes that we are a brain kept alive in a vat, being fed with a stream of inputs generated by an Evil Genius. Everything that we experience as sense data is not real, but is artificially simulated and fed to us.”

First, a quick comment on the Tatsuya Ishida cartoon. There should have been one brain in a vat, and both speech bubbles should have come from the same brain: one taking the part of the brain that is supposed to be the main character, and the other is the internal auditory perception of what the brain presumes to be the other character. Of course it could be that two brains in vats are being manipulated in conversation, but that then seems too much like an actual conversation between brains, and sort of misses the main point of BIV: all perceptions, whether thoughts of the lone BIV, or stimulated auditory perceptions that convince the BIV that it has heard another speak (and visually aware of the other, etc.). But that’s just nit picking.

Back to the problem. How can you tell if you are a BIV?

You can’t. Or rather I should say that so far we don’t know if you could tell or not. The significant point is that we can’t positively know we could tell the difference, between being a real brain in a human body, situated in the physical world we perceive, or being a BIV being stimulated to so perceive the world.

Coel’s parsimony point is right, but I disagree with his use of it. Parsimony is merely a pragmatic tool in an epistemically uncertain world. It assures us of nothing. The proper use of parsimony is that if there are two explanations (or theories) that fit the same evidence then we might as well use the simplest. Since both theories fit the evidence then by definition we can’t tell which is correct, and at that point it doesn’t actually matter.

Example: Theories X and Y fit evidence A, B, C. X is simpler than Y, so use X.

New evidence D also supports X and Y, so continue to use X.

Then, new evidence E comes along that supports Y, but not X. All of a sudden Y is looking interesting. E might be so convincing that it clearly falsifies X and supports Y. Then Y is the theory to use.

Later, evidence F, G might come along, some of which shows that the experiments that affirmed E were faulty, and F and G also support X and not Y. X is back on the front foot.

That’s how it works. In the case of the BIV problem we have zero evidence either way. We have no evidence supporting BIV, and not supporting the falsity of BIV. We cannot resolve it with any evidence we have.

So, what should we do?

Well, think about the consequences of perceiving the real world and being a BIV perceiving a stimulated fictional world.

What if we really are brains in vats? Or, following my criticism of the cartoon above, what if I really am a BIV, and you and everyone else I perceive are stimulated fictions? What can I do about it?

Bear in mind that I can’t even be sure I’m an actually brain in an actual vat either. I might be merely a computer simulation: of a BIV being stimulated to perceive a real world.

This scenario is so fucked up compared to my perception of a real world that there really isn’t much I can do about it. I might want to get all revolutionary on the Evil Genius’s ass; but really, if he’s controlling my brain (or simulating the control of a brain) then he’s controlling my revolutionary thoughts too. He’s actually making my brain wonder if it’s a BIV! The cruel bastard!

In the end I’m left with the correct use of parsimony. It seems like I’m perceiving a real physical world containing other real physical people, so why not simply use that as a working conclusion? Work in progress. Just like all the rest of science.

Note that this has nothing at all to do with thinking about a finite subset of infinite possibilities, or any of that crap.

“Any statement not supported by evidence is most likely to be wrong and thus should be discarded.”

No! This is not how it is. Any statement not supported by evidence is NOT most likely to be wrong! We simply can’t say if its true or false at all. We can’t say anything much about it at all, except that if we don’t have evidence to support it then it’s indistinguishable from a statement that is false, and as such is as useless as a statement that is false. Using terms like ‘most likely’ is totally inappropriate.

Take the statement, “Praying to Jesus gets results, sometimes.” Well, people pray often, and most times they get no result. Sometimes people pray and get the result they pray for. This is true for many sports competitions, since many people seem to pray to Jesus for victory in sports. But since someone wins and someone loses (barring the anathema of US sports – a draw) the actual result is indistinguishable from coincidence. Prayer, as a determiner of sports results might actually work. Maybe Jesus really does dish out results according to prayer and some other very complicated cosmic data he uses. But to us the use of prayer is indistinguishable from useless. [Note, that’s not to say there are not other psychological consequences of prayer.]

“Regardless of whether the “world” is real or simulated, the standard scientific “real-world model” gives the greatest parsimony and predictive power in describing that world.”

Not so. The BIV, if that is the state of affairs, only ‘thinks’ the real-world model gives predictive power at all. The actual laws of the universe that the Evil Genius inhabits might be quite different from the one that the BIV thinks it inhabits, with very different laws. Of course the BIV can’t imagine what those laws might be, because the BIV is only aware of the ones it is programmed to perceive. All the ‘predictions’ the BIV thought it observed never happened. Have you ever noticed in a dream how natural and obvious some of that weird shit appears to be, how convincing it is, when in the dream? Well, why should that not be the case for the BIV? If you are a BIV then you haven’t ‘woken up’ yet to observe how false all your perceptions are; you are still in the ‘dream’ believing you can make predictions.

“Any departure from that standard model would result in a worse account (one that is less parsimonious and less predictive about that stream of experiences). That’s because science’s models do work very well about our world and are the best that we have.”

Not they don’t, if you are a BIV! They only appear to work very well.

“One might object that in a “brain in vat” scenario the Evil Genius could feed us any stream of experience he liked, with no rhyme or reason to it, no regularities and no predictability. That is indeed possible, but then the stream of experiences could only be described essentially as a streamed video tape, which is the most information-hungry type of model and one that would be totally useless at predicting anything.”

It doesn’t matter how information hungry the theory is from the perspective of the brain, real or BIV. This has nothing to do with it at all. The computer simulation of rolls of a dice are more information hungry than rolling an actual device since computer simulations are built on information hungry computers. But that doesn’t mean we should make a statement, “All simulations of dice in computers are actually real dice, since simulating a dice is more information-hungry, and by the rule of parsimony we should not believe that computers are ever simulating dice.”

“In contrast the “real world” model is very compact in that all one needs are the basic laws of physics and all else follows from that. This model has a vast amount of predictive power, as we know from the fact that engineering works, and planes we build fly, and predictions we make for solar eclipses come true.”

No! You, the BIV, only THINK planes fly, if indeed you are a BIV.

“The brain-in-vat model has no capacity to make any predictions at all about the stream of experiences, unless we make all sorts of assumptions about the Evil Genius and why he is feeding us the stream of experiences.”

Well, where in the BIV notion does it require us to be able to say anything at all about the Evil Genius? If I am a BIV then any assumptions I might presume to make are untestable bollocks.

But, the BIV model does make predictions. It predicts that the brain so programmed can make predictions. It can make predictions about its imaginary world, and it can make predictions about being a brain in a vat. They simply aren’t testable predictions.

“Yet, ex hypothesis, we can never have any information about the Evil Genius or his doings.”

Exactly. Including never having the information to know that you are not a BIV.

“The only way of regaining any degree of parsimony or predictive power…”

No, no, no! If you are a BIV you get only the predictive power that the system controlling you, or simulating you, gives you; which, if you are a BIV, is this very prediction that you are or could be a BIV. And it may all be fake. As a BIV you don’t get any say in anything! You don’t get to know anything. The very fact that you are wondering if you’re a BIV is a consequence of being that very BIV, but only because the stimulations or simulations produced by the Evil Genius allow it. That you are predicting the consequences of being a BIV is predicted by being a BIV, if you are a BIV.

Even if the Evil Genius attached some physical eyes onto the brain and allowed you to see him waving at you from outside the vat, you would have not way of knowing which of the following just occurred:

1) You are a BIV and just saw the actual Evil Genius.

2) You are a BIV hallucinating.

3) You are a real embodied brain in a real physical world hallucinating.

This is just like revelations from God that some religious people report, or when some ‘crazy’ person hears the voice of Jesus and neurologists see his auditory cortex buzzing away as if hearing real voices. Religious personal revelations might be real or they might be imagined. These are indistinguishable events. We reject them only because they don’t seem convincing to us most of the time, and because there is not convincing evidence. Though remember, to many religious people, belief is the parsimonious result.

And this is how we deal with the BIV.

Imagine I am a BIV. I am stimulated to perceive a physical world. That fake physical world model results in me learning some physics (maybe fake physics) and evolution (maybe fake evolution) and I conclude that I am evolved from animals that didn’t have brains and animals that had simple brains. With all that I conclude that I am a human animal. one of many, that has a brain that has quite a fertile imagination, and imagines it might be a brain in a vat.

Or, imagine I’m a real human in a physical world. That physical world results in me learning some physics and evolution and I conclude that I am evolved from animals that didn’t have brains and animals that had simple brains. With all that I conclude that I am a human animal. one of many, that has a brain that has quite a fertile imagination, and imagines it might be a brain in a vat.

These are truly indistinguishable. Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this debate. But note that one is a subset of the other. The simpler one, the latter, seems to work in just the same way as the former, except that the former has some features (me being a BIV) that I can’t actually observe or test. So, according to the principle (i.e. suggestion, recommendation) of parsimony I might as well go along with the latter.

Note that this is almost an arbitrary choice; but not quite. I could live my life as if I’m a BIV. Suppose I did so in one of two ways:

1) I live my life as if I’m a BIV, but I keep it to myself. I never tell anyone. I even try to fool myself that I don’t believe it. Other than a few personal psychotic moments how would this be different from believing I’m a real person in a real world?

2) I live my life as if I’m a BIV, but I try to tell everyone? But hold on, why would I? Since I’m a BIV what good would it do telling my imaginary fellow humans that don’t actually exist except as figments of my BIV? But suppose I did, and those very same figments of my BIV locked me up in an asylum. Well, it’s only an imaginary asylum.

The problem with the BIV perspective is not that it’s not real, but that it’s fucked up to think it is real. It just seems to add a layer of complexity that is unevidenced and unnecessary. I might as well go along with the apparent reality I perceive, whether it’s a real reality or a stimulated one or a simulated one.

Note that this is also how I see religion: an unevidenced and unnecessary level of complexity added to our experienced life; pretending we are God’s brains in his vat of a universe. So fucked up that it’s no wonder we get the craziness. But note also that it could all be true – all of it! Islam AND Christianity – all true but we poor brains in God’s vat simply don’t get the big picture; and William Lane Craig is right that all the dead children have been done a great favour. Religion is as exactly as fucked up as imagining we’re brains in vats. Once you start adding imaginary stuff on top of evidenced stuff, anything goes.

“The in-a-vat wrapper to the real-world model is along the same lines, a vast and needless complication that doesn’t in any way improve the model’s fit to evidence. We could just as well imagine any number of other parallel meta-realities that make no difference to what we experience.”

That’s right. That’s all it boils down to. A rather arbitrary choice, made because it makes life simpler, even if only apparently so.

“Since there are an infinite number of such possibilities the chances of any random one of them being actually true is infinitesimal.”

This is totally irrelevant. It wouldn’t matter if there were only two possibilities: 1) real world, as we actually perceive it; 2) BIV, stimulated to perceive the world as we actually perceive it.

“Thus, by the adoption of the usual scientific method, invoking Occam’s razor and principles of parsimony and the need for predictive power, we can reject brain-in-a-vat scenarios.”

No. Only the principle of parsimony is necessary. Predictive power is of no use, since a BIV makes the same predictions. We cannot reject the BIV with any conviction. Instead we simply choose to reject it because that’s easier. There is no other convincing reason.

“That, of course, does not mean that they can be absolutely ruled out, any more than we can rule out any other hypothesis designed to leave no discernible trace at all on our experience of the world (apophatic theologians are particularly good at inventing these), …”


“… but the chances of any such suggestion being true is too low to merit taking it seriously.”

No. It’s nothing to do with chance, probability, possibilities, or anything else. It’s simply taking the simpler option that doesn’t require that we sustain belief in things (Evil Genius, vat, disembodied stimulated brain) that we cannot test.

Coel refers to Descartes and his Cartesian Doubt, whereby Descartes digs deep into a reasoned sceptical investigation to figure out what lies at the bottom when all our uncertainties are stripped away. His working conclusion is cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. From there Descartes cocks it all up, because he already believes in God and he just can’t drum up enough doubt about that.

But his Cogito is about the only place I can see we can start from. Coming up from there I can’t see any difference between our perceived reality and solipsism, or a BIV. That’s the only starting position I have, and that’s were I take it from here: Contingency of Knowledge.